A Home Librarian Hangs on to the Harder-to-Get

Picasso, "Woman with Book" (1932)

Picasso, “Woman with Book” (1932)

We cannot fit all our books on the shelves.

There are bookshelves in every room except the bathroom.

“Have you read all these?”


It’s simpler that way.  Non-readers don’t understand that we have read many, many of these books, and will read many more of them in the future.

On the floor of the bedroom we have about fifty books stacked against the wall.

“What do you have on your ‘nightstand?'”

It’s a floor.

Hence the frequent weeding of books.

The question becomes:  what to keep and what to discard.

Naturally we have kept our classics.  One cannot read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda  too many times, nor Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  I read and reread Virgil, Cicero, Juvenal, Catullus, and the Greek lyric poets on which Catullus  based much of his work.

The Book of the Courtier Castiglione 9780140441925Some favorite classics may be less well-known.  Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier is Machiavelli for the polite set.  Well, sort of.  He teaches the virtues you need to be a diplomat, and he is very entertaining.  He writes, “Practise in everything a certain nonchalance that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought.”

It reminds me a little of the song “Popular” in Wicked.

When I see depressing creatures
With unprepossessing features
I remind them on their own behalf
To think of
Celebrated heads of state or
Specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh! Ha, ha!

They were popular! Please –
It’s all about popular!
It’s not about aptitude
It’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be
Very very popular
Like me! (Ahh!)

Thank you, Glinda the good witch!

And now back to my own musings.

Corduroy by adrian bell Penguin5We have picked up many books at used bookstores over the years.  Sometimes it takes a while to get around to reading a superb book like Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, one of the best coming-of-age novels I’ve ever read, or Colette’s My Apprenticeships and Sidelights of the Music-Hall, a fascinating memoir and series of sketches.  Did anyone else go through an Adrian Bell phase?  I love his rural memoirs, Corduroy, The Silver Ley, and The Cherry Tree. And I wouldn’t for the world give away any of the novels of the underrated Dawn Powell.   We have hundreds of Penguins, dozens of Viragos, several Library of America editions, etc., etc.

When it comes to discards, we are usually on shakier ground.

Looking over my 2008 and 2009 book journal, I realize that we gave away dozens of new or newish books to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale.   I am not saying that they are bad new books.  I enjoyed many of them but discarded them because I would not reread them.

Here are is a list of a few  discards:

vanessa and virginia 5505825Dan Simmons’s Drood, a long novel about Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, who is darkly pursuing an evil character called Drood.

Susan Sellers’ Vanessa and Virginia, a very slight novel about the relationship  of Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell.  Unfortunately, Sellers’  style is very bull-in-the-china-shop compared with Woolf’s delicacy.

Lydia Millett’s How the Dead Dream, a story of a realtor-turned-environmentalist who travels into the jungle.   It is pretty good, but the style is flat, despite the adventure elements of the plot.

America America by Ethan Canin.  Very sentimental:  other than that I remember it not at all.

Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.  Very good, the whole house admired it, but we are not reading it again.

Some of you will be furious that I have discarded your favorite books. “What the hell do you hang on to? you ask crossly

Well, quite simply, I hang on to the best.  My best.

Here are some remarkakle “new” books I read in 2008 and 2009 and kept.  Yes, I do expect to reread them.

Counting the stars helen dunmore 2580513A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, a beautifully-written historical novel based partly on the lives of E. Nesbit and her set.

Helen Dunmore’s Counting the Stars A lyrical historical novel about the poet Catullus and his love affair with Clodia Metelli.  Absolutely stunning.

Julie Hecht’s Happy Trails to You.  Witty, unusual short stories about a likable photographer with obsessive compulsive disorder (though I’m sure Hecht would never be so clumsy as to call it that).

Brenda Peterson’s  I Want to Be Left Behind:  Finding Rapture Here on Earth.  This stunning memoir by novelist, nonfiction writer, and environmentalist Brenda Peterson interweaves her story of growing up in a fundamentalist family with her writing, work to save porpoises, whales, and other endangered species, and rejection of her family’s beliefs while continuint to love family.

Many of you go through the same agony when you try to decide what to keep and what to discard…

I am not even going to begin to list the books I wish I hadn’t discarded…

6 thoughts on “A Home Librarian Hangs on to the Harder-to-Get

  1. From Umberto Eco: “”Have you read them all?” “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.” (Eco, “How to justify a private library.) I’ve probably read through less than a 1/4 of my books, I’ve dipped into more than half. I’ve a whole lot bought by Jim which he read in similar proportions.

    Then there’s: “Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (Carol Shields, _Swann_ — in one of the chapters a character must sell his library; today people don’t buy them the way they used to because of e and kindle books).

    “La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, _Souffrir_).



    • Oh, these are wonderful quotes! I must read Eco’s “How to Justify a Private Library.”

      And I so much agree with Carol Shields. What we read IS a diary. Often I can remember what I was doing years ago just by rereading a book.


  2. It’s difficult – it’s the sentimental and the obscure and the hard to get I end up keeping – and usually more recent ones go out the door!


  3. I’ve bought back books I’ve donated to Oxfam, too. Really wish I hadn’t given away 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley because I’ve wanted to refer to it several times since!


    • I still have Smiley’s book, and appreciate it much more than I used to. It’s hard to keep everything. We gave away over 500 books when we moved some years back.


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